Rocco Landesman had just gotten off the plane from Peoria on Saturday when he arrived at the Theatre Communications Group Fall Forum. We were a group of about 120 TCG theatre members and board chairs, gathered at the Desmond Tutu Center in Chelsea. (Full disclosure: I am neither a theatre member nor a board chair; I had received special permission to attend.*) Everyone in the room was honored that Rocco had carved out the time to meet with us so early in his tenure at NEA, and we were eager to hear what he had to say.
I don’t know Rocco well, although he was our Studio landlord for a few years. As he walked in I didn’t so much assault him as take the opportunity to congratulate him on his provocative entrance into his new role, and to express my hope that he wasn’t discouraged by his critics. His response: “Ann, I’m 62. I’m not about to change now.” I don’t know why I expected anything different, but it was so reassuring to hear those words I almost threw my arms around him and kissed him on the lips. I tend to be a little over-the-top in situations like this, so decided against it.
Rocco opened his talk by telling us about a “gruesome meeting on the Hill” recently, after which he told his wife Debby it reminded him of a favorite old country song: Joe South’s These Are Not My People. Then he told us that he was relieved to be here, because “…you ARE my people!” Vigorous applause. It felt good to be included.
He drew a parallel between the theatre as “the most aspirational of activities” and the Obama administration as driven by aspiration. In his no-nonsense-get-to-the-bottom-line style, he respectfully referred to our President as an artist “…who has faced the blank page” and succeeded in that perilous journey. And he spoke passionately about the theatre as “…the most essential, the most basic and primal of all human activities; the activity that appeals to our deepest needs and impulses.” It was stirring. “I mean it’s gossip – we’re overhearing people talk when we go to a play!” Impeccable timing.
He went on to explain that if we hadn’t heard about “Art Works” yet, we would soon, with its triplicate meaning :
1. Art works on the wall, as in “a piece of art”.
2. Art works to transform lives, as in his case, he was changed forever when he saw Long Days Journey…
3. Art IS work! As in: there are 5.7 million arts related jobs in our country.
Rocco spoke from his heart, and didn’t refer much to his scribbled notes on a yellow pad. He admitted that the Chairmanship is still so new to him he hasn’t figured out how it works. He is comfortable in his discomfort, however, and is not afraid to fail. It is one of the reasons I’m so excited about his arrival in Washington; he is living proof of the Theatrical Intelligence principle: failure is the quickest way to learn.
He was a good sport and answered a few questions we had submitted earlier in the day. His lack of endorsement for ‘No Child Left Behind’ was palpable: “It leaves too many children behind who could be saved by arts programs.” He spoke of a charter school in New Orleans which gave him a glimpse into an inspired program, as he watched young children start the day singing Fats Domino songs.
And he answered my question (don’t even ask how thrilled I was) which was “By what measure will you define your success at NEA?” His answer was to tell of the crusty old New Englander who was asked his advice about what makes a happy life. His answer: faster horses, younger women, better whiskey, and more money.
Rocco: I’ll let the first three go, but without a doubt the way I’ll be judged is by how much money I can bring into the NEA. What can I say? I am optimistic. And with apologies to Mel Brooks – perhaps my optimism is delusional – I can’t help it, I’m a broadway producer.
Applause. Standing ovation. Exit.
My opinion? Perfect casting.
*I was meeting Futurist Jack Uldrich, a Twitter pal, who had presented a stimulating talk on “unlearning” earlier in the day.